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On Holiday
Explore The World On Holiday

During the year-end holiday season, people around the world celebrate in a wide variety of ways. We’ve canvassed the globe and discovered colorful and festive traditions, stories and celebrations, from Japan to Nigeria to Greenland. Read these Inside Tracks and get inspired to plan a holiday journey marked with good tidings and cheer.

Japan – Colonel Christmas

Winter Ice & Traditional Delights

As a predominantly Buddhist and Shinto nation, Japan has imported Christmas as a Western frivolity rather than a religious event. (Japan’s more spiritual holiday celebration occurs at New Year, when family members reunite at home and pay visits to shrines and temples.) Similar to Valentine’s Day, Christmas Eve is the time for couples to express their love with romantic gifts, while friends exchange greeting cards and small gifts. Lights and ribbon bedeck shopping areas. As for food, lines go around the block for pre-reserved dinner at KFC (formerly known as Kentucky Fried Chicken). Believe it or not, Colonel Sanders’ buckets of chicken are a cultural Christmas-Eve phenomenon in Japan.

Germany – Markets & Mulled Wine

Winter Ice & Traditional Delights

As the birthplace of the Christmas tree, Germany is packed with delightful traditions. December Christkindlemarkts (Christ Child markets) spring up throughout the country with aromas of mulled wine, bratwurst and gingerbread. German carols, festive lights, snowy roofs and artisans selling traditional handmade wares create postcard-worthy Christmas scenes that draw millions of visitors per year. The country’s most famous market resides in Nuremberg on its 16th-century Market Square. This “Little Town of Wood and Cloth” features nearly 200 wooden stalls, each competing for most beautiful and tasteful design. A procession of more than 2,000 schoolchildren carrying lanterns leads to Nuremberg Castle, where the Christmas story is retold in tableaux.

Bahamas – Junkanoo

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The celebration called Junkanoo is believed to have roots in the 16th and 17th centuries, when slaves could leave their plantations for three days to celebrate with family. Dance and costumes of West African heritage accompanied homemade instruments, recalling their vibrant culture. In the wee hours of December 26 (Boxing Day) and January 1 (New Year’s Day), the spectacular burst of color and sound lives on when Junkanoo troupes take to the streets in their previously secret costumes to perform in an elaborate parade. Competing for cash and the honor of distinction in music, costume and group presentation, troupes pull out all the stops in this elaborate Nassau tradition, reverberating with rhythmic drums, cowbells, conch shells, brass horns and whistles. Onlookers are equally enthusiastic, cheering on this spectacular show. Nassau features the largest parade, with smaller ones occurring on Grand Bahama, Eleuthera, Bimini and Abaco.

England – Merry Olde Christmas Cards

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Too busy to pen individual Christmas greetings for friends (as was customary in his day), innovator Sir Henry Cole hired artist John Horsley to design a ready-to-send card in 1843. Horsley created a three-panel card, depicting scenes of celebration and altruism with “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You “ printed underneath. The cards were put on sale in a local shop and, with England’s breakthrough Penny Post offering inexpensive public postal deliveries and wider mail distribution (thanks to the new railways), the tradition of Christmas cards was born. They became all the rage in Victorian England and continue to this day.

Ethiopia – Melkam Ganna

Africa’s oldest independent nation celebrates Ganna with deep Christian roots. Celebrations begin on Christmas Eve (January 6) when believers gather to pray and chant at churches. In the northeast of the country in Lalibela, pilgrims gather from far and wide at rock-hewn churches in the hillsides. In the morning before dawn, believers don traditional white clothing to attend church services, followed by feasting with families and friends. Meat stew, injera (a flat bread) and traditional drinks such as tela (homemade beer) or tej (honey wine) make up the feast. King Balthazar of Ethiopia was said to be one of the three who came bearing gifts for the biblical Christ child. Legend also has it that the shepherds of the Christmas story played a field game with their staffs upon hearing the news of the birth of Jesus. As a result, Ethiopian men often partake in this special form of hockey, also known as ganna, around Christmas.

Greenland – Arctic Star

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Greenland’s most recognized symbol of the holiday season is an illuminated star, placed in most every home and public window. Since the sun doesn’t rise during the Arctic winter, stars are the guiding source of light, and symbolize the birth of Jesus. Holiday activities start with church services, after which families and friends exchange gifts and feast on local delicacies such as mattak (whale skin with a strip of blubber), kiviakk (raw bird buried in sealskin), suaasat (barbecued caribou stew), fish and Danish pastries. Due to a dearth of Christmas trees in Greenland, fir trees are imported from Denmark to mark the occasion of Christmas. In villages, large trees are placed on nearby hills so that all may see them at the start of Advent.

Sweden – The Burning Goat

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Julbock (Yule Goat) has been a symbol of Scandinavia for more than 1,000 years. Through the ages, this famous goat has evolved from a roaming prankster to a benevolent gift-giver, eventually becoming the preferred method of transportation for Jultomten, the Yule elf, on his rounds to deliver presents. Besides appearing on Christmas cards and ornaments, Julbock replicas—traditionally made of straw on a grand scale—also grace city squares around the time of Advent. The most famous of these reside in the coastal city of Gävle.

Russia – Babushka & the Three Kings

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Following the 1917 Revolution, Christmas in Russia was banned until 1992, but stories and traditions carried forward. The tale of Babushka centers on an old woman who lived at a crossroads and answered a knock on her door one winter night. Three kings—laden with gifts, wrapped in fur and supported by a long caravan of people and livestock—had gone astray searching for a newborn king when clouds covered the bright star they were following. She sent them away, but regretted her decision the next day and left in search of the child. To this day on Russia’s Christmas Eve (January 6), she is said to search each home, leaving children a small gift.

Lapland, Finland – Hometown of Santa Claus

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Once the secret was revealed on a Finnish broadcasting children’s program, thousands came to the remote town of Rovaniemi near the Arctic Circle to discover the enchanting home of reindeer, elves and Santa Claus. Since then, herds of eager visitors have made the trip to see the magical Workshop Village, Santa’s personal chambers and the Main Post Office where sleigh loads of letters arrive every year. In the spirit of St. Nicholas, patron saint of the poor, Santa Claus greets visitors year-round, while his elves industriously work and respond to mail from around the world. During Christmas, the town is filled with even more magic as glowing northern lights embellish the elusive reindeer trails.

Ecuador – Christmas Pageantry

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The UNESCO World Heritage city of Cuenca, Ecuador, is home to an abundance of tradition and artistic culture. Its cobblestone streets host their most vibrant event during Pase del Niño Viajero. One in a series of pasadas (Christmas pageants) that focus on a representation of the Christ child, this one centers on Niño Viajero (traveling child), a statue from the Holy Land that was personally blessed by the Pope in Rome. Starting mid-morning and lasting throughout the day on December 24, the procession winds its way through the ancient Incan city and reenacts Mary and Joseph’s biblical journey to Bethlehem for the birth of the Christ child. Shepherds, angels and wise men march in the parade, which is preceded by a guiding star and completed with a service at the Catedral de la Inmaculada. Musicians, floats, dancers, horses, llamas and colorful costumes complete the festive mood.

Nigeria – Family, Food & Masquerade

The full spirit of Nigeria comes out at Christmastime, when cities empty and locals flock to their native villages to reunite, celebrate and socialize with family and friends. Music, firecrackers, food and dancing fill the dry winter air as locals gather to show off new clothes, attend church services and watch colorful masquerade dances. They also share in traditional foods like chicken stew and Jollof rice—a West African specialty flavored with tomatoes, onions and spices. Palm fronds symbolizing peace decorate houses, churches, shops and streets, providing a holiday backdrop for the party that lasts throughout the day and night.

Spain – Fiesta de los Reyes Magos

Three Kings’ Day celebrations in Spain include a first night procession on January 5 in almost every region and town. Parades feature the extravagantly dressed kings (traditionally riding camels) accompanied by huge entourages throwing sweets to onlookers. Other activities range from traditional pageants to theatrical reenactments. Roscón takes center stage as the special holiday pastry treat; tradition says the lucky finder of the prize hidden within will be king or queen for the day. Children look forward to a visit from the kings by leaving food and drink for them (and their camels) during the night, and placing their shoes at the door, which are traditionally filled with gifts by morning.

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